30 Apr 2018

Early childhood teachers suffer bites, kicks and back injuries

7:04 am on 30 April 2018

Hundreds of early childhood teachers are suffering stress and work-related injuries, including back injuries, bites, kicks and hearing damage, a new survey has found.

children sit on the mat at an early childhood centre

Photo: RNZ Insight/John Gerritsen

Of the 900 people who took part in the online survey from the organisation ChildForum, 46 percent reported experiencing a problem in the previous 12 months - up from 29 percent three years before.

ChildForum chief executive Dr Sarah Alexander said being cared for by stressed and injured staff had implications for children's safety.

"If teachers are struggling just to get through the day either due to an injury that hasn't healed, a nagging problem or a high level of stress... Children are very intuitive and they do pick up on these things."

Staff under 25 years of age were most likely to report workplace harm with a 70 percent injury rate, while staff aged 65 and older were least likely to.

This may be because younger people were doing more of the heavy lifting and physical work in centres, or simply that more experienced teachers knew how to look after themselves better, Dr Alexander said.

Occupational therapist Nadia Tu'itahi from EduSafe, who has been working with Dr Alexander on an injury prevention programme for early childhood teachers, said the survey findings were shocking - but generally in line with ACC statistics.

People with musculo-skeletal injuries could be off work for up to 60 days, costing a company anywhere up to $7000, she said.

Early childhood centres in Australia and Britain provided manual handling training to their staff as a matter of course to meet with legislative responsibilities - but it was not standard in New Zealand.

"Being more mindful of what you're doing, lifting and carrying and moving, is important for your safety, but also the safety of the child."

More than 200,000 children were enrolled in 4,658 licensed early childhood services and kōhanga last year.

The vast majority of those are private businesses and the teacher union the Educational Institution said there were are huge variations in pay and conditions.

The union's early childhood rep Virginia Oakly said the funding freeze to the early childhood sector since 2010 meant getting access to professional learning and development was difficult.

"We're suffering. Everything's trimmed right back, there's no fat left. And I think this is contributing to a lot of our stress and pressure on centres to stay open and stay viable and staff adequately."

Miss Oakly said she had heard similar stories of workplace horrors, but she hoped they were not as widespread as the survey would suggest.

Dr Alexander said it was time to put "the care" back into early childhood education.

"Caring for those who care for children has to become a priority.

"If Education Minister Chris Hipkins wants to fulfil the Labour party's promise to increase the percentage of qualified teachers that is mandatory for services to have, then he has got to step in now and get a strong focus placed on looking after the current workforce or there are just not going to be enough teachers around to achieve that goal."